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www.amazon.com/dp/B07838C2MJ
My new short story collection "Mythic Transformations" is now out on Amazon! This book is about people being turned into all sorts of fantasy creatures, from griffin to dragon to water elemental to still stranger things. As usual, a free sample is available. Ratings are appreciated on Amazon and Goodreads!
  • Reading: Godwin, "Space Prison"
Had a frustrating experience at a game shop tonight. I'd just bought the fantasy combat game "Tail Feathers" boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/17… and brought that, only to have to put it all back away because I'd forgotten one necessary set of cards out of the unreasonable number of doodads and tokens and counters it has. I'm now regretting buying it. (Also because the plastic minis are nicely detailed yet so hard to distinguish that they cry out for detailed painting that I don't have the time and inclination to do.) Afterward, I got three other people to play the pony RPG card game "Buck: Legacy" and had such a bad time we quit and I question whether I'll ever play that one again.

Looking back on my review of "Buck", I did notice some of its problems. It has confusingly written rules with nonsensical or misleading terms, heroes can get KOed by sheer luck before the player has done anything, KOed players get to sit there and watch their friends play, and if you do get the right spells/items it suddenly becomes trivial to be knocked out. What I liked was that sense of "being a fantasy adventurer rather than a collection of stats", and I still agree with that. I also still like the idea that there's an experience in between adventures, so that the life of a hero doesn't consist solely of the dungeon crawling, and dislike that this town experience is basically just an item vending machine. If there's going to be a competitive element it could be done in a way like "Dungeoneer", in which the heroes are cooperative but their players accumulate Bad Stuff points that the other players use against them like a rotating GM.

It seems like there's an undiscovered happy medium in between board gaming, PC gaming, and D&D-style RPGs. Something that takes advantage of players' imagination while providing enough detail that players uncomfortable with freeform have some guidance. Few expensive physical pieces. Simple rules. Something like... the Fate RPG but done with a mostly abstract board and cards and pawns, something like the abstract Piecepack boardgamegeek.com/image/163907… system but more thematic. At no point should players be eliminated, co-op or competitive play should be possible, and there should be the chance at a "legacy" game where a group develops its own unique recurring setting.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
www.nbcnews.com/mach/science/d…
This article is typical terrible science reporting, in this case about digital kinds of immortality. For those who don't already know this:
-Brain uploading is the concept of scanning a person's brain and creating a digital imitation of it. It'd be really hard but as far as we know, physically possible. It'd probably involve shredding the brain, so the original person is super dead. The resulting digital mind thinks like the original person, continuously, as long as the computer running it keeps running. Arguably it is the original person, and definitely it can continue to have new ideas.
-Digital memorials (my term) are a version of "chatterbot" AI technology. They involve scanning the most superficial data about someone, like their Facebook posts and voiceprint, and creating a superficial imitation of them. The memorial doesn't think in any meaningful sense, it sits there like an inanimate object until you poke it and tell it to say something, and it has no new thoughts. There are no grounds for considering it to be a real person.

There are people seriously considering how to do the first one, and the second one is doable right now. Any reporter who's going to write about this subject ought to know this, yet they don't seem to.

As :icongamer115x: noted on my previous AI post, a lot of what passes for AI right now is just "chatterbots", which are designed to read text and then spit back a reply in text based on looking for key words in what the human typed. So, like, if you type "Do you like Strong Bad", it can know to make some kind of Homestar Runner reference -- any reference at all -- without needing to comprehend anything else about what you typed or to have an opinion. It is just designed to keep a conversation going, and will tend to use non sequitors or distractions to hide its utter lack of understanding. If you ever want to test an AI for intelligence you should look for that evasiveness and lack of depth. There's some brittleness in a chatterbot too because of limitations in how it parses language. My favorite example from studying the Loebner Prize Contest was that someone typed, "My name is s t e v e n" and the bot said something like "Hello, s!" (My own entry was worse, though I was trying for more depth!)
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
Too much information at once becomes useless. I ran into that problem repeatedly today while searching notes and e-mails, and (the one that's been frustrating me all day) getting in trouble on Facebook because I posted "here's my book" things repeatedly and didn't pay attention to the "hey you broke some posting rule" replies in the flood of messages. "Al commented on Bob's post! Bob liked Cindy's comment! Alien ferrets have invaded! Dan posted a photo of her new tail!"

There's a market for an AI just good enough to sift through your notes and communication with language parsing to determine which parts you care about.

From writing and reading stuff about AI recently, including reading more of the FreeRIDErs stories (by Jon Sleeper and Jetfire and Robotech Master), I've been daydreaming about Things To Ask An AI for testing purposes. A good one: "Some mice were afraid of a cat. They invented a plan to put a bell around the cat's neck so it couldn't catch them. But no mouse wanted to volunteer to put the bell on the cat... Why would the bell help, and why didn't they want to volunteer?" It seems like that would be a hard puzzle even for an AI with a knowledge network that includes entries like "cat --eats--> mice". To the extent I can peer into my own thought process on that, I see a cat vaguely doing the action of hunting/stalking and the bell interfering with that. I kind of simulate a hypothetical cat instead of working out the implications based on a traditional logical proof. An AI that's almost but not quite good enough to handle the complicated thinking involved in an idea like "the mice wanted to weaken the cat because they feared it", might have to have some of the logical steps and details spelled out for it. That's what my story characters would call a Tier-II AI: one that can reason, "That thing looks like it's about to fall over and break. Those humans don't like it when things break. I could prevent it." Without grasping why they care.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/22…

"Approaching Dawn: The Witching Hour" is a game about a group of good but inexperienced witches battling demons. My initial impression was "What am I trying to accomplish? I have no idea if I want more spells, or whether I want to 'bind' or 'banish' or what."

First you pick one of several ugly anime characters. Then you get some black Corruption cubes. The 5-point ones are about 50% bigger than the 1-point ones, making them tough to distinguish, and I got one that was only about 25% bigger. Then you buy spells from a confusing pentagam market board where some stacks are locked, kind of like the Pathfinder card game, and get more corruption for learning them. Then demons show up and appear in front of you... and drain your corruption. Except some of them won't appear in front of you unless you have certain colored sigils open. Which open for you based on the next phase, where each player draws five cards (deck-builder style) and most have to be played with with a white or black side up. And here, the sigils on your cards open the sigils of the player to your left, and that left player gets corruption based on which cards you played as black, and you lose corruption based on which ones you played as white. And some cards do something special like activating based on lightning-bolt symbols on other cards.

Then you spend black cards' points to stun or kill ("bind" or "banish") the demons in front of you, or white points to affect the demons in front of other players. Then the unbeaten demons do damage by giving you more corruption, or destroying cards in the weird pentagram. Also you have a secret describing what sin you've committed against magical law and what retribution there'll be for it, and there's an overall mission. We played the intro mission where some special abilities were ignored but we'd lose if anyone hit 15 corruption instead of 20. If you're confused by this description, well, so was I.

Thematically, it's evil to learn spells, and it's evil to have time pass, and it's evil to battle the demons that are up in your face and presumably trying to eat your soul. It's good to battle other people's demons and... that's it really. The "secret" cards also say that it's evil to hurt people with magic, to worship a god besides Gaia, or to use it for popularity or wealth or luck or love or to have a forbidden familiar or to read the Necronomicon or to consort with warlocks. Okay, so if I want to play a good witch who helps others, I need to play my cards' white side as often as possible, right? I get cool white spells with names like Light Orb and Light Potential and Fey Wit. They mostly give you zero points of white mana to help people, versus around 1-3 for typical black spells. You can buy better spells to add to your deck, but again, (1) the black version is probably better and (2) it's evil and corrupting just to buy access to the spell. White magic stinks. So this is a game that makes me feel like getting magical powers would be an unequivocally bad thing.

Compare this game to "The Big Book of Madness". I liked some aspects of that game but faulted it for making the battling of monsters feel like a shopping trip, where you spend a known quantity of abstract resources for a certain result. Here, again, banishing a demon consists of spending X points worth of Y-flavored mana rather than some kind of awesome mage-fight with decision-making or risk. There's such a big punishment for buying new spells that this is a game about magic, where you're discouraged from learning magic. (In BBoM, you're subtly encouraged to buy new spells even if you don't care about them, just to make the next one in each stack appear.) The whole flow of corruption feels confusing and non-thematic, since you lose it when demons appear (because they're, like, using yours to enter reality?) but then they give you more and you get more just by defeating them. The whole sigil concept is underused, since there're these six colored symbols that get locked and unlocked but their only purpose seems to be to affect exactly which demons come after you each round. The deck-building aspect is also underused, because of that cost to buy cards.

I like that there's a story implied by the series of missions, but if you read the excerpts I skimmed in the manual, it basically says outright that you're doomed from the start and your friendly cat-familiar instructor is a demon who trains up and destroys parties of witches over and over. So overall, my two big complaints are how un-fun the premise is, making the whole "band of magic users fighting evil" concept feel like a joyless Lovecraftian slog -- in contrast to BBoM, which has the same premise! -- and mechanics that seem to discourage the very thing you're there to do and that don't really make sense given the theme.

Verdict: Would not play again.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
Played two board games tonight and another new one a few weeks ago.
Bloodborne:
The party is a gang of monster hunters. Our designated final boss was an evil spider with the rule, "Any hunter who dies twice is eliminated from the game." This is a game where it's expected that you'll die a lot. You have 8 hit points and monsters can do greatly varying damage; several weapons for the heroes are designed to make your "allies" lose HP too. In our case we got the high side of "greatly varying" and the entire party died on turn 2. Then a few turns later, I misjudged when to rest and took 4 HP damage at once, eliminating me. Well, that was quick!

The Big Book of Madness:
You're students at what is obviously Hogwarts (down to the scarves and fonts) and have foolishly opened one of those cursed tomes. Now you must build up your powers while fending off the monsters' curses. This is a co-op deck-building game in which you start with a specific character aligned with one of the four elements and a slightly themed deck of various element cards rated 1-3 points. You spend these each turn to buy better element cards, or buy spells, or cast spells, or pump energy into defeating the various monster curses (eg. "put 4 Air tokens on this by X time or Bad Thing Y happens"). The spells are interesting things like "spend 1 Water to put a card into reserve for later" or "spend 3 Earth to cause an earthquake that destroys all Madness cards in anyone's reserve pool". Nice use of theming, and the rules encourage you to specialize. I went with being a Water/Air specialist. Still I felt like there could've been a stronger sense of actually doing things, because "I buy a 3-Water card with these 3 points of Water" or "I spend 2 Air to put 2 tokens on that curse card" feels too abstract.

The Madness system is pretty standard deck-building: you get useless cards that get stuck in your deck. Worse, they actually can't leave your hand by default, and a full hand of them kills you off. There are a bunch of powers for either temporarily discarding them, destroying them (better, but depletes a supply that kills everyone if it runs out) or curing them (returning them to the supply). I thought that was a neat idea with various gameplay effects, like using a spell to reset someone's deck without them gaining Madness for shuffling. Unfortunately, destroying cards is really easy with the basic Fire spell and the way we played, there were a ton of Madness cards in the supply, so there was little point in fancy powers for handling them.

Unfortunately we were also playing this the wrong way; the game's owner is someone who doesn't seem to have a good grasp on the rules of her own games. (Imagine what happened when we tried to play "Pandemic" and she insisted on adding the "In the Lab" expansion that makes the cure-seeking process much more complicated.) So we had the curses/monsters advancing once per complete round instead of once per player turn, ie. 1/4 speed, and it was like "Harry Potter" if the villains didn't start showing up until year 3 or so. Still, I enjoyed the sense of building up magic power and specialties. There probably could've been done more with the sense of learning and fighting, partly because fighting monsters consists entirely of filling up the curse cards with tokens. I'd play again with the proper difficulty rules.

Also: Tiny Epic Western:
From the makers of "Tiny Epic Kingdoms", a cleverly designed, small, cheap game I own. In this one you're buying buildings in a tiny (epic) Western town with a "worker placement" mechanic. Meaning, you have 2-3 wooden dudes you can place in various spots to harvest resources or do some other action, based on which site you put them on. The gimmick is that your workers get into gunfights whenever they have to share a space. On one hand you want to pick sites that nobody else wants, to be sure you don't get your dudes shot and their actions negated... but several rules encourage you to pick fights anyway. For one thing, whoever's won the most recent fight at certain points gets free resources. (In contrast, a supposedly pirate-themed game I once played seemed to have no reason for you to ever fight other players.) Then, you spend resources to get buildings. You can only have one usable on your property at a time (the most recent on you bought), and the buildings are themselves sites that your dudes can visit to do things.

This game is a great example of theming. The resources are Gold, Law and Force. The buildings are all things like saloons and telegraph offices. The "dice" are bullet-shaped. Gratuitous gunfights are encouraged. Most interesting is that there are mini-poker cards placed between the buildings, face-down (once we knew what we were doing) and each player has one. The ranks are 1-5 and you form hands in a fashion similar to Texas Hold'em using the cards next to a location you're interacting with. There's a gambling aspect involved in everything you do, from using your cards to gain resources to investing in particular symbols on the buildings you buy, not knowing in advance which will be the most valuable. Yet it's not totally chaotic like Fluxx because you have some sense of who's winning and there's a fairly clear goal. I'd definitely play this again.
  • Reading: I need new books to read!
The expedition was going poorly due to bad luck. The crew were dispirited and exhausted. Then we reached a village, where the locals attacked us not with spears but with encouraging words and smiles. My crew got cheered up so much they decided to stay for an "indefinite vacation".

On the second attempt, we had much better luck, but I committed a cultural faux pas that I really should've seen coming. (Not a bad random roll, but a bad decision.) At least I got extra supplies out of it. We'd traveled around enough to have multiple encounters with the natives, which gave everybody a boost to their conversation skills. Yvonne had misgivings, though, because I'd stolen a mask and she felt bad about it. When we reached the overly friendly village, this time we dazzled and praised them until the grumpy chieftain gave us a treasure to go away. Winning in a friendly way had different effects than devious or violent approaches would've had. At no point in either attempt had we hit another person, although we severely hurt the feelings of some scorpions.

I have fought hundreds, maybe thousands of fantasy battles where the assumption is that slaughtering all in my path is the only victory. I'd like to go back and try "Fallout 4" again to remind myself that 90% of that world consists of people with names like "RAIDER SCUM" who exist to have their heads blown off. Why haven't games like "Renowned Explorers" (and of course "Undertale") been around for decades?


Edit:
About "The Curious Expedition": I bought this as a bundle with RE. It's on the same exploration theme, to the point of having you do around 5 expeditions and competing with other explorers. (Though RE beats you over the head with the competition part; the villain is a Frenchman named Rivaleux.) "Curious Expedition" uses a hex map where most tiles are empty and the main mechanic is spending time and sanity (!) on movement. Combat is purely dice-based, and I don't think I've ever done more than one point of damage out of 8 or so needed to kill a bear. The goal of every expedition, to anywhere, is to find a golden pyramid. Along the way there's always a temple where taking the treasure sets off a trap that starts destroying nearby tiles. The character skills and interaction seem very basic, eg. I had a guy leave because he's an alcoholic and we ran out of booze. The exploration mostly consists of moving across the empty map, so it doesn't feel like I'm accomplishing much, and the characters don't have specific skills beyond a rare dice-roll mechanic. So, I can't recommend this one as much even though it's superficially very similar.
It's interesting how two similar games can play so differently.
  • Reading: Geusz, "Angry Byrd"
  • Playing: Renowned Explorers
In short: Save your money, find a rusty girder, and just stare at that for two and a half hours.

"Blade Runner: 2049" is, if you're too young to have seen the original, about a slave race of "replicants" who're hunted down and murdered because humans are jerks. Humans cleverly designed them to be almost impossible to ID despite the entire premise of enslaving them being that they're distinctly non-human. A few decades after the original movie, Los Angeles has gone from the very Japanese neon skyscraper world of the distant 2010s to a bleak and utterly dead ruin with a few neighborhoods that look inhabited and neon-y. After some replicant uprisings, humans banned them, then went right back to making more under a different bleak, amoral megacorporation.

Who's the hero? The lead is a serial number replicant that I'll call K, who kills replicants because it's his job. When he does one of these killings, he very slowly realizes that at one point a replicant got pregnant, which is such shocking news that it could cause another revolution. Then he very slowly tracks down the missing child who might've survived, gets evidence that it's actually himself, and then leads the movie through another half-hour of him realizing this. (Eg., a shot of a factory. He walks through the factory. He sees some furnaces. He slowly approaches. He slowly crouches. He slowly reaches into the idle furnace...) Then he gradually learns that no it's actually not him.

Who's he fighting? There's his police chief boss who wants to suppress knowledge of Repli-Baby at any cost, and the emotionless replicant "angel" serving the equally empty boss of Soulless Corporation #2. SC#2's goal is to find Repli-Baby to study it and learn how to make replicants reproduce the traditional way, just because the production rates right now are lower than the CEO would like and that's their only solution. Then there's a faction of replicants who've known about Repli-Baby for decades, so that the police chief's concerns are pointless, and who want to rise up because they know they can (in one known case) reproduce, which is exactly the thing SC#2 wants to help them to do. The rebellion plot goes nowhere anyway. Neither does the hero's personal story, since he chooses to drop dead pointlessly in the end because he's resolved somebody else's plotline.

Then there's Harrison Ford, who shows up around 3/4 of the way through the movie and gets into a gun/fistfight for ten minutes or so with K. Why? It's completely pointless, because they have no reason to be fighting and it ends with Ford's character literally just saying "we could keep at this or get a drink". I guess the point is to give us some action? He's actually Repli-Baby's father and he's been hanging out in a ruined casino with no food for decades, doing utterly nothing.

The climax takes place on a grey metal slope in heavy rain. Seriously; it's dark and wet and sloped metal and that's all there is to it, as K and SC#2's Angel punch and stab and drown each other until somebody dies. The movie manages to make this death battle boring, because I don't care about these characters and their actions don't seem to matter. That's partly due to unclear goals -- do the revolutionaries or SC#2 win if news of Repli-Baby gets out? -- and partly due to Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy. Literally, this movie is so dark that it's tough to tell what's going on sometimes. When there's better lighting, the sets are like lines of poetry... and I mean that in a bad way, because they're almost all extremely sparse. several scenes take place in "a tan room" or "a big tan room with kind of a curved ceiling and dim rippling light" or "a white dome". The director is so in love with his clever visual poetry that he lingers and lingers on every detail. For instance there's a sequence of around 11 camera shots that go like: "In silence, a man walks through a desert. The desert is bleak. There is a statue. It's a statue of a woman. The man walks. There's something in the distance. It is bees. The man walks up to a beehive. He inserts his hand. Now there are bees on his hand. He walks along." What's the significance of the bees? Nothing! There aren't any damn living plants visible in this entire movie!

A great deal is made out of the fact that now there are AIs using holograms that can interact with solid matter (except when they can't; compare the rain-on-hands scene with the prostitute scene). If there are advanced AIs, then the entire premise of replicants becomes pointless! There's also a big deal made out of replicants having false, implanted memories of being human children. Despite the entire premise of the story being that humans really want the replicants to be different and inferior. Why keep the replicants' status basically identical to the original movie's? I guess, to try to make money by selling tickets to people who liked the original or "heard it was good and had Harrison Ford in it".

In short, the storytelling is lazy, incredibly slow-paced, and illogical, the sets are ugly and bleak and depressing to the point that I don't care who wins or what they're fighting over, the time period of the setting is already outdated by real-world events, and the director left so much empty space that you could recite "The World's Longest Joke" during the slow, silent parts and have a better time watching this. There was a preview for the "Ready Player One" movie, which also relies heavily on 1980s nostalgia. I already reviewed the book as being bleak and overly simplistic because the hero has no meaningful goal and exactly one thing is taking place in the setting. But still, I somewhat enjoyed that story. I can't say the same about "Blade Runner: 2049", and I can't even honestly say it'd be a decent movie with half an hour cut out.

Oh, and I left out the scene where SC#2's CEO creates a naked replicant woman and then stabs her for no reason, apparently just to give him a scene where he can give a creepy monologue explaining that he's frustrated with the company's low production rate. Jeez, dude, if you're destroying the merchandise every time you explain something no wonder you're not making quota.
  • Reading: Always Gray In Winter
  • Playing: Infra, Part 3
Engels' "Always Gray In Winter" www.amazon.com/Always-Gray-Win… is about a clan of were-cats in the modern world, who try to kidnap a scientist and steal his research into their "Affliction". The attempted theft is part of a fight between a Polish/North Korean alliance and a Polish-American family, whose daughter Pawly went missing for years and who's just been rescued/kidnapped by her family's friends. The story is advertised as military SF, but the focus is really on the family and friend relationships as the characters converge on the stolen gadget that can help the were-folk.

I had trouble juggling the names of the characters. Sometimes it's simply because of switching between someone's first and last name, as with Manuel Latharo who's called Latharo by the narration until suddenly he's called Manuel, or Natan "Nat" Opoworo and Nikodemos "Niko" Opoworo who are also both called Opoworo. Sometimes it's a character speaking a name with an accent, as with Tommy/Tomasz. On p.130 it's because of a nickname, an actual name change and a similarly named character in the same scene. I had to go back and reread that part before deciding that of four names on the page, Milda, Milena and Lena are one person but Ewelina is another.

The story flips between several viewpoints: Pawly, Hana, Niko, Lenny, Dory, Mawro, Alex, and more. (The fact that these are similar-sounding androgynous syllable pairs is a subtle problem too.) Since their various flashbacks also add a shift of time and place, I sometimes got lost. On p.54 in particular, a flashback is introduced in a park, like so:

"A flicker of light caught his eye. Lenny glanced up to view a bright white void swallow up the children, the playground and everything else before the shock wave slammed into him. He flew over the back of the bench into the air. His arms and legs flailed about until he impacted the bulkhead behind him... he slumped to the deck below."

It's a deliberate attempt to blur my understanding of where and when the scene is happening, as a sort of PTSD effect. It works, and it might be a good thing in a story that doesn't already have an ambitiously large cast. As is, I'm still not sure of the full significance of the "Chah Bahar" battle that was so important to the characters, and was startled late in the story to find that Lenny had gotten this far without knowing Pawly is a were-cat. I mistakenly thought that Pawly vanished for nearly ten years after her first transformation, but instead she got beaten unconscious by her family (to snap her out of her "Rage"), joined the military, and only later vanished after Chah Bahar.

Another moment of puzzlement came in the same chapter as the "Ewelina" bit. The story was following Niko's group meeting new people, and I realized that I wasn't sure where Pawly and Hana were besides that they'd both been seen in the same general forest area. While I was trying to follow what was going on, the story jumped into a multi-scene flashback to a sea battle involving yet other characters. A more important flashback about Pawly's first transformation starts with only a blank line (not the symbol used in some places), fills the rest of Chapter 4, continues into 5, then returns to the present before 6. So, the story rapidly shifts between people and time periods and places without providing clear signposts such as chapters with names or time/place/POV headers.

Now, about the plot. As the back cover explains, there's "a feud between opposing werecat clans... that has raged for years". Late in the story we meet one of these clans, based in a Polish national park. Which is the opposed clan? I'm really not sure, since they were working with the Koreans for a while and Pawly's family expects to be welcome among them. What's the basis for the feud? Well, besides a grudge at centuries of mad scientists hurting the Polish tribe, Hana is angry about her parents having been killed, and Pawly is angry about her father's death. Maybe the opposing clans are Hana and Mawro versus Pawly's also-small family? All of these "Kindred" have a rule, "Harm not the Children of Affliction", but Pawly and Hana repeatedly fight with lethal force. Hana's first reaction to a threat, for instance, is to start chucking poison darts the size of crossbow bolts.

I would like to have seen more about the Kindred themselves, including the Polish tribe. There's some interesting background setting information here about a secretive group of "Afflicted" creatures with an international bond and creed. We don't get to spend significant time learning about them, though. I can't tell you how this "Rage" thing works, for instance.

What is the role of Pawly, shown on the front cover and starring on the back cover? If I unravel it in chronological order: She transformed unexpectedly as a teenager, offstage, and vanished for a while. She's then seen in one scene as a vigilante, but is rescued/kidnapped by her family that wanted her back. She then rides along with her family as they go to Poland, and becomes one of many people trying to guard/capture the box with the science equipment. What major decisions does she make or how does she grow as a person? What does she actually want? Would the main conflict have played out differently without her, since she's not present in most scenes? It seemed like she was a minor character.

What's at stake? Both sides want to conduct research into how this were-cat thing works. The bad guys already have special earrings to help them control their changes, but they're planning to deliver the stolen equipment to North Korea. Some of the support staff behind Hana and Mawro mention "Great Leader", but Hana and Mawro don't seem to care about helping North Korea and are only interested in the feline research. Kim's country doesn't play a role other than to get some American agents involved, on the theory that an advanced gengineering device would be dangerous in Kim's hands. Mawro's stated goal is "the path by which he could set his clan's course right" by researching the transformation. I'm not sure what that path actually *is*, though. There's a mention of the hope that the Polish cats will become able to leave their forest, but really they're capable of that already, especially if they can get the control earrings Mawro already knows how to build. What's the reason behind the whole "Masquerade" of hiding were-cats' existence? Fear on the part of the Poles. Nothing stated for Pawly and Hana's factions. It's the default assumption of an urban fantasy world where such creatures exist, and it's not really justified or questioned here. Both the US and NK governments know about the weres, for instance.

I fear that I've misunderstood the story, and that rereading the whole thing might help. Take my comments on confusion with a grain of salt, because Hurricane Irma and other distractions interrupted my reading. Even so, I rarely have this problem and did make an effort to flip back and reread some parts. I would like to see a revised version of the book that tries to limit the viewpoints, rearrange the flashbacks, indicate where and from what perspective each distinct section/chapter takes place, make it clear what exactly the villains are trying to accomplish, and give Pawly an important role if she's to be the main character.
  • Reading: Always Gray In Winter
  • Playing: Infra, Part 3
www.amazon.com/dp/B075PW8VGH/
My new book "Perspective Flip" is on sale! (Cover art by Anatariva, www.furaffinity.net/view/24269… .)
This story collection is about transformation: people whose species and sex are changed by everything from advanced space colonization technology to a botched deal with the devil. The collection ranges from science fiction to fantasy, from serious to ridiculous, and focuses variously on the transformation itself or its aftermath.
If you're interested in other sorts of transformation, see my book "Mythic Transformations", which is still up for a free preview on Amazon's Kindle Scout site, kindlescout.amazon.com/p/E4HYC… , where you can nominate it for Amazon to buy the rights. I've also got a kitsune themed story collection early in progress.
  • Reading: Roman History
  • Playing: The Long Dark
:icondavid-af: mentioned wanting to see my Tales story "Burning Forever". I just read through the shorter, more focused version of that, which is 3985 words long. It's interesting, but clumsy. It has a woman who's awaiting a criminal trial, go to the country's capital to attend a Congreessional hearing about the facts of her case. That's weird and stupid but it's important to how the story works. In summary, the story goes:

"Crazy Uncle Bob's Discount Uploading Clinic burns down. Its owner, Sharon, is devastated. She'd been trying to help people by offering the service for the middle class, but cut too many corners on safety. Now she's being prosecuted for *manslaughter* of her patients, which is a big deal since the country doesn't recognize uploaders as people. She's informed that this is a trumped-up charge and she's supposed to plea bargain down to 'reckless fire code violations' or something, which plays into the hands of anti-uploading politicians. She says hell no, she'll plead *guilty* to manslaughter and see if the politicians blink first. They do. She talks with Congressman Norwood (see 'Coyote'), who starts to talk with her about how to do uploading cheaply and safely. The End."

(The clinic's real name, "Forever Hearth", is mentioned in an in-game advertisement in "Learning To Fly".)

This is a distilled version of the original, which is an 8316-word piece mostly from Norwood's POV. In that one he talks more about the many convoluted problems associated with uploading, like robot labor, which really would take a novel to handle in any detail. There's also a plot about the man and his dog. The fact that he's *talking* about those problems is another flaw, since having characters sit around discussing things is less exciting than showing a dramatic conflict like a fire or a trial.

I would like to try to clean up the short version of "Burning" and market it, but am not sure how. (Also I've sent multiple Tales stories to F&SF, which has given me some encouraging notes along with their drumbeat of NONONO, and I'm a little hesitant to send yet more in the same setting.)

As for other projects, I have: (1) unfinished German steampunk piece "Arms of the Jotun", (2) revising the silly "space ferret" story to fling that at F&SF because why not, (3) finally rewriting the non-furry fantasy novel "Striking Chains" and trying to market that one, (4) a kitsune short story collection, (5) trying an interactive story/game. Re: #5 I would also want to do another simple Ren'Py experiment for practice.
  • Reading: Roman History
  • Playing: The Long Dark
"Massive Darkness" is a spinoff of the "Zombicide" games, which are mostly mindless zombie slaying. Those are kinda fun. MD is supposedly streamlined compared to the earlier games' rules. I played with someone who'd spent around $350 for a complete Kickstarter set with all the fixings including fancy plastic pieces, a ton of miniatures (unpainted) and an expansion set we weren't using.

The basic idea is that you're an adventuring party moving around a set of 3x3 tile boards where each tile is light or dark, decorated with vague ruin-like shapes. I don't know if it's supposed to be in a city or a sewer or what. Some groups of tiles represent rooms with doors. Whenever you open a door or the group's turn ends, semi-random stuff happens, mostly monsters appearing. So for instance, on our two-board tutorial quest, we opened the only door on the first board and got a gang of 6 weak orcs guarding a tougher orc and some treasure. What that really meant was we had to pump damage into the horde of minis until they ran out of hit points, and each hero within melee range with them took a counterattack. Attacks are in the form of rolling X number of red/yellow dice vs. X blue/green defense dice to get swords > shields. Some special * and (diamond) marks trigger special bonuses.

So what was the experience like for me? At one point I spent around 35 minutes between one turn and the next, sitting there reading and writing. When my turn rolled around, what I did was basically "move forward, take a swing at monsters, accomplish little or nothing because I'm playing the healer, and heal somebody slightly". And then, at random, we drew a "High Troll" with 36 HP. I stared at it and said, "So basically we have to stand here and beat on it until that big pile of tokens is gone?" "Pretty much." We eventually killed it by virtue of having some magic gloves that let us keep passing weapons around between players so we could each attack. I contributed basically nothing the whole time but some healing and like 2 HP of damage. I played for over 2 hours.

The game's owner said that the game was so slow because we were new players and discussing what to do. That's a good point, but still, the ratio of waiting to doing things was frustratingly bad, and there seemed to be little decision-making when it was my turn. Part of the problem is that the game consisted of those two 3x3 boards, so there was very little opportunity to move around. The significance of the light/dark tiles is that certain powers are available when you're standing in darkness -- except that my character only had them in light, and never got to stand on a light tile. So there's basically no sense of terrain, or movement tactics, and the only thing my character could really do was a no-brainer action of "heal somebody nearby with low HP", so there was no interesting decision for me to make. The only times I really got to make a real choice once we started were (1) which of the basic skills do I want to learn (and never get to use), and (2) do I want the two-handed weapon or the shield?

The problem with meaningless terrain reminds me of the game "Dungeoneer", in which the map is made of tiles that can have specific types of threat, and "Arcadia: the Wyld Hunt" ( boardgamegeek.com/image/323462… ), in which the back of each terrain card can affect the problems you face. If you're not going to have a large number of squares to move around on, like in a true RPG, then positioning should be important in some other way. Again I want to emphasize the idea of "interesting choices" in game design: I should have several options of what to do, with different effects, where there's no objectively best choice and I have enough information to have at least partial knowledge of what'll happen. For instance, what if I could divide my dice manually between offense and defense, based on how aggressive I want to be this turn? What if I could pull out of an enemy tile if I risked taking an "attack of opportunity"? What if (as in Fate) I could save up my attack to grant a bonus to an ally instead of dealing damage? What if I could vary how many actions I took per turn as in "Conan"? What if I could do anything at all other than raise my allies' HP or try to reduce enemies' HP? Unfortunately it didn't seem like I had any such options.

So for me, "Massive Darkness" was a glacially slow disappointment. I'd expect a future game to go faster, but I'm not inclined to find out.
  • Reading: Roman History
  • Playing: The Long Dark
kindlescout.amazon.com/p/E4HYC…
My short story collection "Mythic Transformations" is up on the Kindle Scout system! What this means is that Amazon will consider buying the rights to it. If you nominate the book to get their attention, and they agree, you get a free copy! If they don't, well, you get a total of two e-mails.

If you're interested, please visit the Kindle Scout site, which requires only an Amazon account. On my book's page you can read a 5K-word excerpt and/or click "Nominate", which costs you nothing. Thanks for any support!
  • Reading: Roman History
  • Playing: The Long Dark
The result of the Boston rally as reported:
-Protesters with a Mexican flag and pro-socialist, anti-GMO (?!) signs along with BLM
-The free-speech group left very early, because its "speakers could not be heard due to the shouts of those protesting".
-"Some people dressed in black with covered faces several times swarmed rally attendees."
-"Twenty-seven people were arrested, largely for scuffles in which some protesters threw rocks and bottles of urine at police."
-The free-speech group had a permit to hold their rally, and the much larger counter-protest groups had no permit as of yesterday at least. The police did not break up the unlawful assembly.
-The police believed that the main group needed an armed escort to escape safely: "the police had helped the demonstrators get into police wagons as part of a prearranged “exit strategy.” It was then, he said, that 'we had some kids block the street... We had to do a little pushing and shoving there...'"

So, to recap, one side violently and criminally attacked the police, shouted people down and prevented them from being heard, and were intimidating enough that even with a carefully planned police cordon, the cops and original rallyers agreed they were in physical danger even while trying to escape. I haven't seen any reported evidence that today's original group included a shred of racist sentiment, but they were targets of black-clad masked criminals anyway. And the counter-protesters think this was a good outcome.

Sources:
A live video
ca.news.yahoo.com/charlottesvi…
www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/us/…
  • Reading: Lone Star Nation
  • Playing: The Long Dark
I'd just read "Dragon's Egg", in which humans study a tiny world full of strange aliens, and "Spheria" www.amazon.com/Spheria-Cody-Le… struck me as similar. I liked the exotic virtual world and seeing the inhabitants invent a culture and technology suited to their physics and biology. However, I was disappointed in a couple of ways.

I'm having trouble accepting the premise. The virtual world of Spheria and its inhabitants, the Polyans, were created as a project to justify funding for the QUBE, a tiny quantum computer cube. That's because other than the military, the heroes struggle to find anyone willing to buy a super-powerful, tiny, efficient new type of computer. The Polyans' world is a hollow sphere where one half is empty because the developers figured they might want to start a second independent experiment someday. Why didn't they consider making a second virtual world? Spheria is meant as an anthropology experiment, to observe how an alien culture evolves and leading to insight into human cultures. But instead of running it like an experiment, the humans change a whole bunch of variables at once, like having a biological caste system and Game-Of-Life-like physics and weird seasons. The researchers want to study a culture unsullied by human contact or interference, explicitly referencing Star Trek's Prime Directive as a real-life guiding principle. But then, they start off by appearing to the Polyans as gods, on purpose, and still overtly mess with the seasons. Also, though it's important to let Polyan society evolve on its own and anthropologists try to observe rather than judge, it so happens that you can rate a Polyan on a one-dimensional good/evil axis that happens to make its QUBE turn blue/red. The non-interfering humans can't reset QUBEs -- it's physically impossible -- so they decided to burn the red ones and reincarnate the blues. I'm not sure how that works as an anthropology experiment. Also, it's impossible to restart a QUBE to have different settings for its AI personality, even though the device is read/write, but it's possible to totally reprogram the thing to do other kinds of calculations.

Another part where I had trouble with the plausibility was the Polyans' intelligence. The critters are able to make plans and reason and tell stories. Yet this kind of thinking isn't mentioned as being important, even though real AI would be a super-valuable thing even without the QUBE. There's no mention of other AI existing in the setting, so it's strange to me that nobody considers finding other applications for the AI. Why not use it for a robot? The story says that there's no adequate software for functions like basic vision and motor control, even though basic versions of both exist today. The exception seems to be that the military wants to use QUBE technology (not caring about the AI) to calculate a molecular structure for a new type of battery for a top secret naval railgun... a technology that is already known to be in testing in the real world. As part of the military plan, the guy has somehow built something in a weirdly stealthy way, and put blueprints for the whole weapon in there when there was no reason to do that.

I skimmed at several points when the story went off on a filibuster. There's an extended discussion of the Polyan creation story, which we already know is false; a company dinner where everybody on the team reads their biography; and a discussion of the inventor playing Minecraft. None of this material is relevant. The worst example is when the heroes look up something about a famous radio signal, by quoting page upon page of a real-world podcast ("Stuff You Should Know") about it. I don't mind an author showing us details on a topic they find cool, but the info should be relevant to the plot, characters, theme or setting.

Finally, the conflict struck me as kind of forced. Military guy wants to use a technology for war, and this turns into a... more extreme conflict in several ways than it might've done. It felt to me like things were happening just so that this conflict could turn out in this specific way, even if it doesn't make sense in-universe. Why the rift dividing Spheria? So that the author could make *this* happen. Why the incinerator? So that *that* could happen. Why put the full blueprints there? So that a character could find them and be shocked. Why did that conflict happen within Spheria? There's an implied reason, but it's a convoluted plan if so and nobody comments on the implications.

The author mentions having tried to develop a realistic primitive-AI language for the Polyans, but gave up because it'd be clunky for human readers to read "Hi-Ro go north ask". I respect that judgment call, but it does mean that the Polyans come off as so smart it begs the question of why there isn't more being done with the technology. That's a problem I had with "Ready Player One" as well: if this cool tech exists in the setting, why is it seemingly only being used for this one thing?

So: interesting story, but I'd have liked to see the basic premise explored in a more natural way.
  • Reading: Lone Star Nation
  • Playing: The Long Dark
A game idea.

A group of adventurers set out on behalf of their young kingdom to meet dragons and enlist their aid for a grand magical project: reaching the planet Armira, which hangs in the sky seemingly almost within reach.

Each dragon is a self-contained adventure. There might be some choice of the order to visit them in. Inspiration: an RPG book about dragons, and the RPG book "Ryuutama".

The overall gameplay structure is a series of short semi-random adventure events encountered while the party is traveling toward the dragon's lair, interspersed with a few more elaborate locations where the party explores a dungeon and of course, encounters a dragon. Events during travel include fights, natural hazards, other travelers, and strange sights.

The party is fixed. You control a hero you get to name and customize a bit. Your other party members are:
-Brand the Bastard: Dispossessed son of a noble family that fled the country during the recent revolution -- and good riddance to them! Trained in fighting and courtly manners. Eager to a fault to prove his worth and loyalty.
-Spiros Brightpaw: From a race of skunk-folk created by exposure to the reality-warping power of the fae. A scholar and wizard who prefers the magic of healing and creation to violence, and who'd rather flee to save his own pelt than fight. A little disturbed by how many people want to hug his tail and/or sleep with him. (The token furry; might be replaced with a human.)
-Natalya Kaboom: A merchant girl raised by pirates ("Privateers!") who fast-talked her way into the expedition to get rich and rebuild/take over her island home. Likes an indirect, sneaky approach to problems and is always looking for a profit or new friends -- er, business partners. Comes with a shoulder-mounted parrot named Lookout.

These three all have different combat styles (fighter, mage, thief) and different persuasion methods (diplomatic/forceful, intellectual, mercantile/sneaky).

Likely game engine for this is Ren'Py, which has all the basic visual novel stuff built in. The catch is that I'd want to have a little more gameplay than the barely-interactive "why is this in game form?" kind of story. I would have a simple combat system focusing on you picking one character to lead the way each round. Eg., pick Brand to handle the bandits and he charges in; Spiros casts a spell; Natalya does something sneaky. Or, you take some fourth option that's context-dependent like kicking over the furniture or leaping from the stairs. Characters should not have hit points but instead take wounds that can linger between scenes.

A tricky part of the gameplay is how to set up a bunch of short, semi-random scenes that can happen while traveling and present interesting decisions for the player. The dragon RPG book I'm thinking of discussed using a dragon's territory as a set of concentric zones with increasingly intense guard patrols or magical strangeness, so that adventurers must balance any desire for haste or adventuring with the threat of making a malicious dragon aware of their presence.
  • Reading: Lone Star Nation
I don't think I've mentioned it here, but... If you're interested in TF/TG furry fiction, you might like this book. www.amazon.com/dp/B071VZ27MW . It contains expanded, revised versions of the stories "On the Edge", "What Happens In Vegas", and "Meet Someone New", along with the longest two stories, the all-new "Mother of Invention" and "Blossom Spa". Intended for mature audiences.
  • Reading: Lone Star Nation
Someone on FA asked me about the interactive story experiments that're lying around like broken toys. I said:

"I'm trying to figure out if any are worth the effort! "Dragon Fate" is completed and online and there's an e-book and print edition with more content... but it doesn't sell well. The "Firstfeather" thing would be part of a larger project with a unique battle system that I can't implement in Twine. The water temple one was originally a tabletop RPG adventure, and I think it doesn't work very well as a Twine game.

"Island Tail" would be a big complex project like "Dragon Fate", with multiple islands to explore, but I'm not sure there's a market for it. See, it's a complex enough project that I'm not eager to build the whole thing and then give it all away, while there are novels to work on. If I did "Island Tail" it would probably need to be presented in a more appealing format, like a graphical "visual novel' with art that'd need funding.

So... This one? Maybe in some form. If I'm going to just build an interactive story and put it up here it ought to be something new and simple so it's not a huge time commitment."

Which gets at the question of what I'm trying to do with my writing. I want fame, fortune and volleyball ottergirls, but I also don't want to shut away all my work behind a pay-wall, not with how this newfangled Internet works.
  • Reading: Lone Star Nation
I've been playing "The Long Dark" thanks to :iconnuclearpoweredpony:, who asked what kind of survival/crafting games I most like. Interesting question. I played a lot of "Subnautica", an underwater sci-fi game with a very different style, and the also-sci-fi "Empyrion: Galactic Survival". TLD's tone is desperation: you're usually struggling to survive at all. The closest thing you'll have to a base is an abandoned cabin that's liveable if you have warm clothing, where you can wreck irreplaceable furniture for scraps of wood to burn with your dangerously short supply of matches. (Easy mode is more forgiving: steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles… . Also there's a story mode coming, which I look forward to.) SN's tone is more upbeat, because even though you're alone and stranded, you're usually in good health and you can reach a point at which you have a self-sustaining base. EGS is somewhere in between because you can create a reliable food supply but you still need to worry about power supplies and your base being attacked.

Mapping is important to the tone and feel of a survival game too. In TLD your map is sharply limited by a supply of charcoal, so I have just a few spots filled in. In SN there's no in-game map and all I can do is use a wiki and place signal beacons, which can make it frustrating to search for things because with the in-game technology I really should be able to produce a chart. In EGS there's an automap showing resource deposits and other things, triggered by you getting anywhere near them. This version is useful but doesn't feel like an achievement to use because it's fully automated.

The motivation for exploring is important to a game's style. In TLD you need to keep moving (but see easy mode above!) because you're constantly short on supplies. In EGS there's little pressure to travel, so your wandering is mostly self-motivated by you saying "I'll try to build a spaceship". In SN, you're exploring not because resources force you to, but to advance the thin plot and get resources toward the overall goal of escaping the planet. It's been described as a horror game, partly because you are the one choosing to go into increasingly remote and scary places when technically you could just hang out in the Safe Shallows.

So, some key factors in these games' feel are (1) having a base, (2) building a base as opposed to commandeering a sad ruin, (3) whether you have sustainable life support or are in constant danger of running out of a key resource, (4) ability to map the world, and (5) exploration driven by need versus curiosity. I think I'd most like some ability to build a base, and to have it be at least partly usable even without constant resource consumption, to explore because of curiosity, and to be able to map large areas but not automatically. But the other variations are fun too, just different.
  • Reading: Continue Online
I like board/card games with a strong sense of theme. I was reminded of that tonight while trying a few unfamiliar games and one I'd played before. First was "Splendor", in which you're collecting gems. Somehow you use gems to buy identical gems, and your hoard counts as free gems toward buying more. In "Bohnanza", you try to collect sets of identical cartoon beans ("Red bean! Stink bean! Coffee bean!") and trade them for points while swapping them with other people. In "Alhambra", you try to build a garden by buying tiles and placing them next to each other.

Trouble is, you could replace the specific names for things and it wouldn't change the feel of the games, because the theme is basically just slapped on there. As an exercise, I imagine "Sentinels of the Universe" with all the art and flavor text removed and the damage type names changed to random words. I could still tell you that Legacy does healing and buffing, Haka just hits people for one damage type, Absolute Zero hits himself for two damage types and bounces both around, The Dreamer is an enemy you have to protect as opposed to Plague Rat who makes heroes hurt each other, and so on. The gameplay is strongly linked to the story/premise. Same for "Buck: Legacy", in which clerics heal people, Hot-Blooded heroes have no limit to their power, armor saves your hide, and being a pegasus lets you avoid certain threats. Same for "Tiny Epic Kingdoms" in which dwarves go for the infrastructure victory and one terrain type, elves benefit from another terrain type, undead get resources from killing enemies, and so on. Strip away the fiction, and the mechanics of the various parts are still distinctive. The opposite extreme is getting one of those chess sets where the pieces are Civil War figures or something and calling that a "Civil War wargame".

In other words, I lean strongly toward the "narrativist" school of gaming ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNS_theo… ) that says "give me a game that lets me pretend to be a spell-flinging kitsune or something; I don't want a 200-page rulebook or to play with purely abstract symbol manipulation!" And yes, that means chess kinda bores me. And pure math.

(Semi-related comment about PC gaming: check out "The Long Dark".)
  • Reading: Song of the Summer King
  • Playing: Overwatch